Tag Archives: Michael Boyd

Crowning Achievement


The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018


Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

Tamburlaine production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_258815

Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

A Tsar is Born

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 29th November, 2012

Pushkin’s classic drama defies categorisation. I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘Shakespearean’ – it contains elements of Old Will’s histories, comedies and tragedies, sometimes within the same moment.
Evil Tsar Boris (Boh-reese) at first denies the crown, reminding me of Julius Caesar, amid rumours of having murdered a young prince (Hello, Richard III). Meanwhile, bored young monk Grigory does a runner from his ascetic lifestyle, in the pursuit of worldly pleasures. He adopts the identity of the supposedly murdered prince and gathers supporters who will help him oust Boh-reese. That he is not the rightful heir doesn’t bother anyone too much. Grigory is a means to an end: he will rid Russia of Godunov.

Lloyd Hutchinson’s Boh-reese looks like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and shares something of his management style. He is a curious mix of Machiavel and father, a powerful figure brought low by illness. The strongest scene, for me, involves his dying words to his young son Fyodor. He rattles off advice like Polonius saying ta-ta to Laertes. It is a manifesto that proves too much for the boy. In an assured performance, the very young Joshi Gibb slices his own throat open, rejecting his succession – proving you can’t always Push kin. (I’m so sorry).

As the pretender Grigory, Gethin Anthony is also a curious mix of heroism and villainy. It is the ambiguity of the characters that keeps them interesting, although they can appear as inconsistent or schizoid as the play lurches from drama to comedy to romance and back again. Anthony has a powerful presence. He would make an interesting Hamlet.

It’s a delight to see Lucy Briggs-Owen back on the Stratford stage as arrogant beauty Maryna, in a rom-com scene she plays with elegance and steel. I also enjoyed Philip Whitchurch’s Father Varlaam, a Toby Belch-cum-Falstaff figure who freestyles couplets in between boozing and singing.

Director Michael Boyd keeps the stage rather Spartan. He uses his ensemble to create atmosphere and define locations. Cast members form an amusing fountain at one point; at another they represent a battle charge by thrashing their coats onto the stage. Moments like these are very effective.

I was not as pleased with some of the clunky gear changes of tone. Broad comedy vies with boo-hiss plotting and vengeful soliloquy, and at times I found Adrian Mitchell’s rhyming couplets a little too noticeable – but then perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the overt rhyming is an alienation device to make us think about the events unfolding before us, rather than becoming emotionally engaged.

As the action progresses, the costumes and props are subtly updated providing a low-key retrospective of Russian coats throughout the ages – but more importantly than that, the coats underpin the notion that the power struggles and despotism of the Tsars are still alive and well today, having survived Communism, Stalinism and the dismantling of the USSR. When Grigory the pretender is finally proclaimed Tsar (or should I say, Put in), he is completely up-to-date in his smart suit. He stands, literally, on the backs of the people. This is the final image of the piece, making a political point via theatrical means. It is an Orwellian moment, akin to seeing pigs and farmers around the same table. This is not just about Russian politics…It’s an eminently watchable and thought-provoking piece that deserves larger audiences.